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Babel by Torchlight


The Fall of Fonthill

Eighteenth century black magic, alleged homosexual and pederastic sex and flagellation, an early case of crucifixion by the gutter press, heterosexual and group sex, the building of the 'finest Gothick Revival building the world has seen' and its collapse, and the tragic dilemmas of a fantastically wealthy 'nouveau riche'; these are the powerful ingredients in this new play which, as well as being sensational in its own right, also opens up new frontiers for popular drama.

In his huge study, Family Sex and Marriage 1600-1800, Professor Stone attempts to show us that the eighteenth century was a very licentious time, even by today's standards. He looks only at heterosexual sex. Beckford's work gives an opportunity to look at sexuality (whether real or imagined) through the eyes of the promiscuous bisexual man of that time.

For William Beckford was certainly one of the more remarkable inhabitants of Britain around 1800, indeed, one of the strangest men that ever lived.

From the time of his marriage, and the necessity of fleeing the country after the scandal with a young aristocrat, to the final collapse of Fonthill, he was notorious. Gossip columnists in the journals of the day treated him sometimes with admiration, more often with contempt. He was the subject of books. His own output of letters, journals, and other writings was prolific: even now not completely catalogued.

Fonthill, the gigantic folly he constructed, was incredible, perhaps the most fantastic building ever built in England.

A climactic moment of his life concerns the fall of the central tower at Fonthill, which causes him to reassess his life. For him, Fonthill was to have been his most enduring monument.

He himself wrote;

'Like the low murmur of the secret stream

Which through dark alders winds its shaded way

My suppliant voice is heard - oh do not deem

That on vain toys I throw my hours away.'

I think a lot that is crucial to Beckford's life is present here. He wants to be liked for himself, not for his money, but he knows that the world's view of him is that he consumes his energies on 'vain toys' - the building of Fonthill, his affairs with boys, adultery with his cousin's wife, and entertainments such as he gave for the visit of Nelson.

His life was a self indulgent search for happiness, fulfilment, and respect. Some may say he failed to find any of these. In loneliness he reaped the reward of a great selfishness towards those he loved. But he also contributed to his, and our own, times. Humanity is enriched by the idea of Fonthill. The fact that it fell does not invalidate it.

He was in some ways a very modern rich man. He used his wealth in the way that film stars and rock music stars do today. And he was a victim of a new type of gutter press journalism which was looking for victims. He was the first of that huge number whose life prospects have been destroyed by the gutter press.


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